There’s an old warhorse of a trope that I first encountered in the poly communities that, thanks to various (sub)cultural overlaps, rears its head in certain monogamous circles these days as well. You may have heard it; it goes something like this: “All your relationship problems will be solved if you just COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE!”
Yeah… no, not really.
I mean, as a relationship therapist it’s kind of my job to work with people who come in and say, “I/we want to improve our communications within our relationship,” and it’s work that’s both rewarding and fulfilling, generally (on both sides of the therapy process, even). So it’s not that improving communication DOESN’T solve problems, because improving the articulation and reception process CAN change things significantly.
The epiphany I had a while ago, as I was trying to articulate any one of the many reasons I have come to hate this particular trope (other than its oversimplification of how *easy* it implies communication SHOULD be), is this:
We can only ever be as good at communication in general, as our ability to recognize and understand what it is we’re trying to communicate.
Let me illustrate this with an example from my own life, because this epiphany pretty much encapsulates a big part of the communications failure on my part of my marriage’s collapse.
We can only communicate what we know. If we can communicate that much effectively, that’s great; that can be a LOT of useful information to give and receive and integrate into personal and relational understandings. But when things continue to bamboozle us or upset status quo AND WE DON’T KNOW WHY, then there’s a limit to how much information we can communicate about what’s going on. In my case, I knew I was thrashing emotionally, but I couldn’t say why. I could talk about a lot of things–for all the relationship’s natural flaws, one thing we did well was “talk about our feeeeeeeelings”. But the things I couldn’t talk about were the things even I couldn’t see and therefore didn’t understand… and they were the things I was, unfortunately, highly reactive to in the final stages of the collapse. I didn’t know then what I know now, for example, about attachment theory (especially in the area of early attachment injury) or common issues around being an adult child of alcoholics, let alone the intersectionality between those two topics. I didn’t know then what I know now about self-regulation of anxiety through meditation practices as simple as mindful breathing and body scans. I didn’t know then what I know now about entering into communication attempts with statements of intent for the conversation (or at least, I/we weren’t practicing that consistently).
The point is, there is always so much more TO know that we simply can’t communicate, because we can’t see it (yet). It’s not uncommon to get one or more members of a relationship in the counselling room and have someone own the fact that one or the other is not prone to a lot of self-observation or self-reflection. And therein lies a massive part of the problem. If you’re not looking inward, then what, exactly, do you know about yourself *TO* communicate to a partner? And this doesn’t even begin to cover what happens when someone who is self-observant and self-reflective but far too wrapped up in anxiety to share those thoughts and observations effectively with a partner. Another issue that contributed to capsizing my marriage was an issue from my partner who struggled to disclose information at times.
- Just because stuff is happening in our internal landscape, doesn’t mean we’re observing it.
- Even if we’re observing it, it doesn’t mean we’re reflecting on it as a way of trying to better understand ourselves and what’s happening inside us.
- And even if we’re reflecting on it, we might not feel safe or secure in disclosing those observations and reflections.
- And even if we do feel safe and secure in making those vulnerable disclosures, it doesn’t always mean we have the SKILLS to effectively engage in conversation about them.
When clients come into therapy, they’re usually assuming we start with that final point: working on the communications SKILLS to articulate something important about their experiences to a partner. But when the communications skills don’t always fix the problems as presented on intake, the same clients often come back frustrated with the process, with each other, with the therapist. And that’s when we have to start working backwards through the rest of the list to discern whether the things we’re talking about are actually the things needing to be discussed.
Sometimes therapists can observe places where words and nonverbal information seem incongruous, but honestly, the onus needs to be on the clients themselves to up their game when it comes to internal work. And this can be a difficult challenge for a variety of reasons, starting as simply as, “I don’t know how”. Since we can only communicate what we know, this gives us two avenues to start: What do I know about myself because of what I can *observe* about myself, and what do I know about myself because of what I interpret or believe or tell myself? Neither avenue ever presents a full story, because people are generally more complicated than that, especially in times of distress or crisis. However, we can approach both observable behaviours, and the interpretable aspects (motivations, beliefs, scripts, etc.) with an open-minded, non-judgmental curiosity: where does that behaviour or thought come from? What do we feel like it motivates us to do? What feelings or additional thoughts do we observe being associated with, or triggered by, the catalyst? Do we recognize it as being a component of larger patterns? Can we separate out the catalyst thought or action from what we feel are default reactions, to see other potential available options?
An analogy borrowed from the realm of astronomy comes in handy here: there’s a lot of stuff out in the depths of space that we can’t actually *see*. So from an “observable phenomenon” perspective, we can’t actually look at a thing and know it for what it is. But what we CAN observe, is the impact the invisible thing has on objects we CAN see; for example, something exerting a significant gravitic force on bodies in a solar system will cause the orbiting bodies of that system to shift in their transit paths. We may not be able to see what’s causing the shift, but we’ll certainly notice when one or more celestial bodies make relatively sudden, incongruous shifts in their expected movements. In cognitive psychology terms: we may not be able to see what’s causing a reactive behaviour, but the fact that we can see and experience the behaviour will strongly suggest there is something invisible provoking it.
This is where, when luxury of time permits, we can delve deeper into the emotional experience of the moment: does it feel like anything else we remember experiencing? How do we feel now about those earlier experiences, and are we seeing any similarities in our current situation, both in terms of the perceived triggers, and in the perceived reactions? What can we share about those observations? There’s potentially a lot of cognitive and emotional processing that comes as part of the package when learning to develop the self-observation and self-reflection skills; observation means learning to see what’s happening in and to us, and reflection means finding ways to think about/assess/analyze the experience and sort it into something meaningful to us. And we have to do all of that work, ideally, BEFORE we even get to the point of trying to articulate that information to someone living OUTSIDE our own heads.
So far, we’re still just looking at figuring out how to handle the self observation/self-reflection part. We haven’t even begun to tackle the aspect of learning HOW we communicate: how do we know *TO* communicate? How do we decide WHAT to say, how much do we selectively self-edit (and at what cost)? How well do any of us articulate our thoughts and feelings at best of times, never mind at the worst? Do we make effort to effectively shape the INTENT of any communication process we engage?
This sounds like a tremendous amount of work, doesn’t it?
It certainly can be. After the marriage ended, I spent six months intensely, and other year a little less intensely, digging as deeply as I could get on my own and with my own therapist, into what we uncovered about where some of the invisible baggage I was dragging around came from. That was a hugely painful time of confronting a lot of moments of, “How the hell did I not know this about myself??” or “Why the hell couldn’t I have figured this part out BEFORE everything went sideways??” And I watch my clients struggle, time and again, with the same frustrations. The discovered information is never wasted, but it doesn’t always come to light in time to reverse course, either; and when partners, even armed with new perspectives and understanding about themselves, can’t summon enough energy or belief in things being different to mount a new development plan for the relationship, it can be hard to avoid wondering, why bother?
It’s this complexity that fuels my growing dislike of the “communicate, communicate, communicate” adage. It strikes me as a dangerously reductionist approach to something that is anything but simple for many people, creating an almost caricature-like presentation that leaves some people feeling like failures because “we talk and talk and talk, but nothing gets any better”. Communication as an intimate process has to be effective in and of itself, absolutely; but beyond that, we have to do the work to effectively understand WHAT needs to be communicated. So the next time the phrase crops up (especially if you move in circles where it’s bound to crop up eventually, possibly repeatedly), consider this as a response:
Communicate! = Do we know WHAT to communicate?
Communicate! = Do we know HOW to communicate?
Communicate! = Do we know WHY we communicate? (the *INTENT* or expected outcome)
It’s not just about the talking. It’s as much about saying the useful and needful things, and it’s about how we shape those communications, as it is about simply making the effort to talk in the first place.